So we have already discovered why Muhammad was seeking a spiritual encounter in a cave, we have learned how this encounter would be interpreted by a person of his time, and we know by what name the Power introduced himself. Based on the nature of the Power revealed by these events, we should expect, then, for the contents of Jabril’s message to 1) counter the Jewish and/or Christian beliefs, and 2) contain a revelation of special or secret knowledge.
Let’s look at the first five ayat again:
- Call out words! in the name of your Lord, He-Who-Created–
- He created man from a blood-clot:
- Call out words! And your Lord is the most generous,–
- He Who taught by (the use of) the pen,–
- Taught man that which he knew not.
There are three claims being made about this Lord in the first revelation. 1. The Lord’s name is He-Who-Created, an attempt to usurp the divine Name of Yahweh (as already discussed). 2. That men are specifically created from a blood clot. 3. The Lord is the Power than brought the knowledge of reading to mankind.
Special Knowledge: A Pillar of the Quran’s Authority
Muslims today are taught that a central feature of the Quran is that it is a source of hidden knowledge, most often couched today as “scientific miracles.” If you search for “scientific miracles of the Quran,” you will get huge lists of purported scientific truths that are supposed to be in the Quran (though none of them actually are). The revealed truths are supposed to be one of the main ways that people can know that the Quran is true, based on claims both in the Quran and in Islam’s most trusted sources.
To a modern person, it might seem like a plausible kind of test, though a bit quirky. After all, if there was a clear prediction of the discovery of Neptune or clearly expressed Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics or the Law of Universal Gravitation, that would make a pretty convincing argument that a supernatural Power was at least behind the production of whatever book it was.
These claims also made sense in a pagan context. Many pagan gods laid claim to introducing man to different areas of knowledge, such as writing or metallurgy.
Similarly, one of the earlier heresies of Christianity (from the second century AD) was Gnosticism. Though the term was only coined by Henry More in the 17th century, referring to a specific monist heretical belief system that was centered around revelatory knowledge, it can be applied more loosely to mystery cults and similar phenomena that were based around humans becoming party to supernatural knowledge, often of their own divine natures but also including information about the physical world. (Note that the New Testament appropriates the language of the mystery cults polemically to affirm that the only “mystery” is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of man–the point is that this is a clear teaching and yet it is a greater wonder than any hidden knowledge.)
Special Knowledge: Sinister to Jews and Christians
The ancient Jews and Christians had a very different view of supernaturally acquired knowledge than the gnostics or even their neighbors in Mesopotamia did–one that makes moral sense of the cultural memory represented by the Greek story of the punishment of Prometheus for bringing down the knowledge of fire. The ancient Judeo-Christians believed that providing knowledge that humans were not ready to discover for themselves was extremely dangerous and wrong. This is not because knowledge itself was inherently bad but because every new knowledge that led to new technology could be put to purposes that were either good or evil. Steel can make better ploughs or more deadly swords. Cosmetics can increase beauty but also feed decadence and hedonism. Astronomy guides ships but also leads people into searching for signs in the stars. The wheel gives us carts and cars but also war chariots and tanks. There was a basic belief that technology delivered prematurely (by corrupt and self-serving Powers) will lead to self-destruction.
Therefore, in the ancient Judeo-Christian worldview, claims of secret knowledge of the world were seen as belonging to Powers (just as the pagans did), but they were the exclusive domain of corrupt Powers, who rebel against the Creator. Anything that promises this sort of secret knowledge, then, can immediately be assigned to an evil cause by a follower of the God of Abraham.
This concern may seem superficially overblown, yet Western societies constantly agonize over the dangers of technology for which a people is unprepared. From the knowledge of physics and fission, we have the atomic bomb. What does that mean for our future? We don’t know. Will we destroy ourselves? We might. We even agonize over mechanization, even though thus far it has been the single greatest source of human prosperity.
If you think withholding divine knowledge is too extreme a theological position, let me introduce you to postmodern paganism. The entire climate change movement is a thinly disguised ecological death cult that believes that the ritual purging of unclean hydrocarbon technologies followed by the extermination of nine out of ten people is necessary to propitiate Gaia and restore balance between her world and humanity. In fiction, the entire technothriller genre is highly skeptical of technology and fearful of all the terrible things that it could bring. Likely without even realizing it, Gene Roddenberry was influenced by his Jewish background in his creation of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, even in his supposedly post-theistic (but really monist/gnostic), communistic world, where humans stand in as enlightened demi-gods.
Now let’s dial it back and imagine that Genghis Khan had the power to control fission via supernatural intervention instead of the US developing it in World War II. We know exactly what he would have done with atomic bomb technology–he would have punched the red button so hard and so many times that his finger would have gone numb! Pick the petty modern despot of your choice, and the results would hardly be different. The sheer technical difficulty of the atomic bomb has functioned as a kind of safety valve to keep humanity from killing itself–so far. But we have no guarantee that it will keep us safe in the future.
The ancient Jews and later the early Christians understood as-yet undiscovered knowledge in the same way that we understand what would have happened if Genghis Khan got atomic weaponry. They took a very negative view of any attempt to achieve knowledge through a supernatural shortcut–this had to be a bad thing. These thoughts are present in the Bible, but in a very condensed kind of way, and they require understanding the cultural milieu of Mesopotamia to see it clearly. The ideas are actually most fully expressed in the Book of Enoch, which is a non-scriptural, non-inspired book that is nevertheless the place where the Jewish understanding of the little-g-gods of the pagans is most explicitly elaborated. I do recommend reading this book not as a source of divine truth–because it has never been understood that way–but as a clear expression of the general cosmological view that was in the heads of the prophets, the inspired writers, and Jesus himself.
So what do we make of all of this?
Simply that ancient Jews and Christians would expect a corrupt Power to promise hidden knowledge to Muhammad because that’s the sort of thing that corrupt Powers often did. Ancient Jews and Christians would not expect their Creator God to do this, because their Creator God is most definitely against giving Ghenghis Khan a big red button to blow up the world. The Creator God gives prophecy (a prediction about the future), but never special knowledge. In 2 Corinthians 12, we find that Paul has been forbidden from even divulging some of the divine revelation that God has shared with him–things that probably had little to no effect on material life and may have settled some Christian debates about the organization of the heavenly realms. In the Old Testament/Tanakh, we often find God giving very specific instructions to his prophets about what to share with the people, with the implication that even things that some people are privileged to know are not for others under any circumstances–there is no induction into a secret society that gives you access to this extra revelation. Similarly, Moses spent days with God on the mountain but only brought back the Ten Commandments. (The rest of the Mosaic law was given over time.) We shouldn’t imagine that was the only thing he learned from God. Even the parts of the Jewish Law of Moses that were inexplicable to people of the time were not given the status of secret knowledge, nor are any mystical significances given for the various taboos that Jews are supposed to observe to set themselves apart, something that is very unusual for its context. Humans crave explanations, even bogus ones, and so it is almost obstinate that there are none at all given for the cultural practices that are expected of Jews in the Torah, beyond a few broad principles which are themselves symbolic but not at all mystical. The Bible touts moral wisdom, not secret knowledge, and it is important to distinguish the two.
But all of this happened 600 years after the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And in that time, many people had forgotten the ancient beliefs that underlay orthodox Judeo-Christianity. Mysticism had heavily infected Judaism, and it had even attacked Christianity, with heretical sects breaking off from the faith. The Pharasitical Rabbis of the post-Temple Diaspora had claimed the ability to use their theological reasoning to determine the kinds of knowledge that little-g-gods had claimed that they could give people before.
The Revelation of Embryology
In contrast, the Quran establishes its claim to secret knowledge shared with mankind in the very first surah that was revealed. The Quran itself is supposed to be Muhammad’s great miracle. The word “ayah” was applied to the verses once the numbering system of the 1924 Cairo edition of the Quran was developed. Before 1924, the Quran was not divided into verses, only into surahs. Yet the word “ayah” was still used. It means a “sign,” as in a sign from God, because the Quran was conceptualized of being composed of a series of signs containing secret knowledge, now revealed, from Allah.
Therefore, the “scientific miracles of the Quran” are a theological stand that Islamic scholars are forced to take and defend. There are almost endless hadith in which Muhammad’s prophethood is supposed to be confirmed by his revelatory knowledge on many different subjects about the natural world, medicine, the spiritual world, hygiene, justice, and many other topics. It is upon all of this secret, special knowledge that so much of the reputation of Muhammad is based in the ahadith. If there are no “scientific miracles,” then the Quran falls, too.
The first “sign” of the Quran was the name of the Power (though Muhammad did not understand it), and the second “sign” was the declaration that the Power had made humans from a blood clot.
This is so embarrassing that the Sahih International translation tries to hide the meaning by calling “al-alaq” a “clinging substance,” a ridiculous obfuscation that no other translation stoops to. Why bother? Why is it so important that this single word stand?
Though it doesn’t mean much to a modern reader one way or another, the specific revelation about the blood clot was very significant to the people of Muhammad’s day, and there are many hadith elaborating on and clarifying this Quranic embryology, because it is the revelation of hidden knowledge like this which is one of the Quran’s main claims to divine origin. This ayah has remained significant for Muslims until the present day and is necessarily one of the “scientific miracles of the Quran.” All of this deception is necessary because the authority of the Quran rests on the truth of exactly this type of revelation.
You might ask how or why a Power could mess up something like that (since I am actually taking the rather controversial stance in this article that this particular surah did come to Muhammad in exactly the circumstances he described). The answer is simple: corrupt Powers aren’t omniscient even about the present, much less about the future. The Power didn’t know. He took his best guess, and he was wrong. The falsity of this revelation is a problem for Islamic scholars (hence their need to change the historical understanding of the ayah), but it would be entirely expected by a Jew or a Christian.
Aristotle, Galen, and the Blood Clot
But where does the “blood clot” idea come from? Why would asserting that humans start as literal clots of blood be something that would catch the attention of Muhammad’s contemporaries? Why would knowing that humans start as blood clots be a valid revelation?
At the time of Muhammad, there was a debate between followers of Aristotle and followers of Galen about human sexual reproduction. Aristotle (384-322 BC) proposed that the man’s seminal fluid imposed the human form on the menstrual fluid of the woman. Women supply the matter that will constitute the child, while men are the instigating factor that shapes the child’s existence and provide the only “seed.” Galen (AD 129-c. 210/6), on the other hand, had the theory of two fluids–that the fluid from the mother and the father come together to form a child. (Galen’s theory required that a woman also have an orgasm for a child to result–the fact that his theory was held in high regard for such a long time tells you something about ancient sexual intercourse.)
Both of these ideas were in circulation in the seventh century. They each had something to recommend them, in the age before microscopy and DNA: Why do children resemble their fathers as much as their mothers, on average? Well, it’s because the father’s seed has the organizing power. Why do some children nevertheless take after their mothers more? Well, it’s because both contribute seminal fluid to make the child. Both theories also have their own problems, but actual points of the debate are irrelevant to us now. What matters is that in the second ayah revealed to Muhammad, the Power who comes to him purports to settle, once and for all, a debate that had raged for close to 400 years. Aristotle was right all along, the Power says: A child starts as a clot of retained menstrual blood, its shape formed under the influence of the father’s semen.
We would expect, if this revelation comes from a corrupt Power, that it would be in opposition to orthodox Jewish and Christian belief. But did it?
The Christians had no real commitment philosophically to either Aristotle or Galen, though Galen’s idea had become more popular and was generally accepted as true–it also fit better with Christianity philosophically, because Christians saw the difference between men and women as much smaller than the opposites of the Aristotelian model. The nature of knowledge and who can make claims to it would cause a brief crisis as the new doctrine of papal supremacy was promoted in the face of the Protestant Reformation in the Early Modern Period, approximately 1000 years after this time, but the pope pretty quickly backed down from any sort of claims of a generalized authority to reveal secret knowledge or settle naturalist debates, even on the basis of infallibility. Theoretically, the Catholic Church does still maintain that it could authoritatively settle any debates, just as it claims an authority equal to or superior than the Bible itself, but it continues to be viewed as having a plausible authority only because it does not do so. However, these types of claims were a millennium in the future at this point and were still foreign to Christian thinking, with vigorous, lengthy debate over these sorts of matters being considered essentially nondoctrinal and not terribly significant, even when a theological basis was used for the argument.
The great early Jewish rabbis, however, had already made claims to authority that at least reached those of the wildest claims of the Catholic Church. After the twin crises of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the faction of the Sadducees were completely overcome by the Pharisees, who immediately claimed interpretive authority over everything, for they declared that everything in life had a theologically correct answer. They hurriedly purged old theology that pointed to Yeshua as the Mashiach and filled volumes with legal rulings that were assembled in the Babylonian Talmud, assembled between the 4th and 5th centuries AD. They treated the Torah quite differently than anyone had before, in order to establish and emphasize every kind of distinctiveness between themselves and the Gentiles. There was no moral standard that was not subjected to reinterpretation and overthrow on the basis of rabbinical reinterpretation, and many very well-established previously orthodox (in the small “o”) Jewish practices were thrown out in the process.
These rabbis declared that their interpretations of the Tanakh (Old Testament) were more authoritative than the Torah itself, because they provided the only lens through which the Torah could be view–so changing their rulings could only be done through reinterpretation of them and a reapplication of their principles, not through confrontation with a conflicting biblical text. For example, the rabbis declared that Abraham observed the full Law of Moses. However, it says in the Torah that Abraham married his half-sister. This is a conflict, and since the rulings of the Talmud cannot be wrong (they can, at most, present conflicting beliefs among the scholars, which allow for a range of interpretation), the word “father” was declared, with no basis textual, to really to mean “uncle” instead. The rabbis declared precedence over the literal word of scripture.
These rabbis had also come down squarely and explicitly on the side of Galen, and they had and expounded upon Galenic beliefs about human reproduction in the Talmud.
Our Rabbis taught: There are three partners in man, the Holy One, blessed be He, his father and his mother. His father supplies the semen of the white substance out of which are formed the child’s bones, sinews, nails, the brain in his head and the white in his eye; his mother supplies the semen of the red substance out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair, blood and the black of his eye; and the Holy One, blessed be He, gives him the spirit and the breath, beauty of features, eyesight, the power of hearing and the ability to speak and to walk, understanding and discernment.Talmud, Tractate Niddah, Folio 31a
And the sons of Ulam were mighty men of valour, archers; and had many sons, and sons’ sons. Now is it within the power of man to increase the number of ‘sons and sons’ sons’? But the fact is that because they contained themselves during intercourse in order that their wives should emit their semen first so that their children shall be males, Scripture attributes to them the same merit as if they had themselves caused the increase of the number of their sons and sons’ sons. This explains what R. Kattina said, ‘I could make all my children to be males’. Raba stated: One who desires all his children to be males should cohabit twice in succession.Talmud, Tractate Niddah, Folio 31a-b
Again, this has the force of absolute authority in Talmudic (i.e. capital-O-Orthodox) Judaism. We can see why Muhammad, with his four living daughters, would find the Talmudic view offensive. It could be used to argue that the reason that he had no sons was because Khadija never had an orgasm with him–that is, he was simply bad in bed. Muhammad’s lack of a male heir has been reworked as a kind of gift in Islamic theology, but in the culture of his time, it would have been a lasting shame, especially since his wife had borne sons to at least one previous husband.
Therefore, ayah 96:2 is a polemic against the Jewish view and a declaration of superior revelation from the secret knowledge of a supernatural Power that had been vouchsafed to Muhammad alone. It is also something that Muhammad would very much want to believe–a refutation of the Book of the Jews.
Muhammad would later proclaim that the Quran was better than other scripture because it was entirely clear, which would (he claimed) free it from the debates that other people had before, with their inferior revelations. This settling of embryology was the first of the forays into establishing Muhammad’s revelation as the source for all definitive answers to any question that you might have about life, from toilet customs to the organization of the universe, from how you should wear your hair to salvation.
The Consequences of the One-Seed/Blood Clot Theory
Society is organized on how people perceive their reality, and human theories of sexuality and procreation are one of the ideas that shape society the most. Objective knowledge does not change that, but it alters the basis upon which these arguments are made. The one-seed theory expressed in Aristotle was based on the more ancient idea, which was universally adopted by both Indo-European and Afroasiatic (including Semitic) cultures, that genetic inheritance is fundamentally patrilineal–that is, men are those with the “seed” (that would be seminal fluid, not actual sperm), and women were the fields into which the seed was planted. This means that women’s major reproductive function was that of a vessel rather than a partner. A virtuous or healthy woman’s womb could be measurably better than another womb, but the child was of the line of the father and the father alone, because wombs can’t have “lines,” so to speak. (The Mosaic law that set down the inheritance of land to daughters when no sons were born was revolutionary and “anti-scientific” by ancient standards. Personal property was another matter entirely and was not of concern to tribal cohesion but in the collectivist societies of the past, it was very transgressive to allow a daughter to take land that was then seen as leaving the family when she married someone else.)
The revelation of Muhammad reinforced the very narrowly patriarchal ancient tribal views of the Arabs, which will become typical of his revelations, as we will see. It also pushed a counter-claim of Ishmael against Isaac, the son of promise. If inheritance was really only determined by the man, then there was no valid case for Ishmael to be disinherited even if Sarah was supposed to be the mother of Abraham’s heir, not Isaac–except, of course, the decree of God, which was more than enough to upset human tradition any other number of times! Nevertheless, this is laying the groundwork for declaring that Ishmael was properly at least the co-heir of Abraham, and perhaps even deserving of the better part, as the older son.
Muhammad’s one-seed stance was so unpopular and appeared so backwards to his contemporaries who took the new Galenic view that he walked it back somewhat later, taking a hybrid view that no one else had ever argued. One of his major preoccupations was ended factions and settling differences, and in his view, this approach did this. Nevertheless, a firm one-seed, blood-clot stance was where he started.
Where does this leave us?
So now we have a man who went into a place of coming in contact with spirits of the underworld, who has an encounter that would be instantly interpreted as a malevolent Power by any Jew or Christian. This Power attempts to usurp Yahweh’s name, and the Power immediately imparts false secret knowledge of the world that is a polemic against Jewish understanding and that laid the groundwork for future claims of legitimate inheritance.
And we’re only two ayahs deep.
Next, we’ll finish out this revelation by exploring the Power’s claim to have invented writing and the significance of writing in the ancient Arab world.
See the main page on Surah 96:1-5 to continue.